GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Heavy security measures were already in place Wednesday on the University of Florida campus ahead of an anticipated Thursday afternoon speech by firebrand white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Alachua County ahead of the event, clearing the way for additional law enforcement from across the state to help police with what some are anticipating could be a heated response outside the Phillips Center.
The Anti-Defamation League brands Spencer as a white supremacist whose buttoned-down appearance and articulate speech belies a hateful, anti-Semitic ideology.
“It's kind of an eye-opening situation,” student Arik Benlevy said. “We are not in the '40s anymore where anti-Semitism is open at least as it was back then, but it does still exist, and it is very prevalent in the 21st century.”
Attorney General Pam Bondi this week painted Spencer, the head of the National Policy Institute, as a dangerous provocateur who has incited violence across the nation.
“This guy is out there espousing violence and hatred and anger,” Bondi told reporters Tuesday.
Despite that, Spencer's supporters insist he's not a racist.
And, they said, he's not to blame for violent clashes like the one at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead and dozens more injured.
But the university, city, county and state aren't taking any chances.
The parking lot of the Hilton near the Phillips Center was packed with police cars Wednesday, as law enforcement staged for Thursday's event.
Officials couldn't provide exact numbers because of safety concerns, but hundreds of troopers, police officers and deputies were in Gainesville.
Some campus buildings are shutting down Wednesday night and will reopen Friday, and road closures started in the area at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Students have been urged to avoid the area and to keep student IDs on hand to get into the library, student union, and other campus buildings that will stay open Thursday.
"It feels like a police state. All the buildings are on lockdown. You have to show your ID to get in. There's altered hours. I feel very restricted right now," said UF student Colleen Davoli. "I feel like I don't live in America. Like this is not what I'm used to."
Student Tyler Ellman said he feels Thursday's event could go in one of two directions.
"It could be a huge catastrophe," he said. "Or it could be something that blows over very easily."
University chief: Security cost for Spencer speech 'unfair'
UF President W. Kent Fuchs said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press that Spencer is "hijacking" public universities -- which are compelled by the First Amendment to provide a speaking forum -- and forcing taxpayers to pay the resulting security costs.
Fuchs estimates the school will spend $600,000 on security for Spencer's planned speech Thursday. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government, in this case a public university, cannot charge speakers for security costs.
Spencer's National Policy Institute is paying $10,564 to rent space for the speaking event.
"I fully understand freedom of speech cannot be burdened legally with the full cost of this, but on the other hand we're being burdened," said Fuchs, sitting in his office on campus in Gainesville. "So taxpayers are subsidizing hate speech."
Following the August violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one counter demonstrator dead, Fuchs said high security costs are required to ensure a reasonable amount of safety.
"I'm concerned about violence between Spencer supporters and violent protesters," said UF student Nick Rudnik. "We know Spencer and the potential for violence that surrounds all his events. So more law enforcement to keep us safe, the better."
Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who organized the event at University of Florida for Spencer, called the high security costs "discouraging," and said anyone from either side who incites violence should be arrested.
"That money should be used for scholarships, more research or stay with the taxpayers. But at the end of the day free speech needs to be protected," he said.
On the eve of the speech, UF student Rachel Farmer told News4Jax that her family members are so worried about her safety that they are begging her not to be anywhere near campus on Thursday.
"My mom told me not to go to work tomorrow because I work on campus. People are staying home," Farmer said. “We don’t get this too often and it’s very frightening that one person inspires all that."
After Scott's emergency declaration, Fuchs said the school received many calls from parents concerned about safety. Fuchs had told students prior to the governor's announcement to go to class as usual, and said the campus would remain open.
Fuchs said he supported the governor's decision because it was requested by law enforcement, but admitted it created challenges for his administration.
"Parents want to know, 'Why is the governor declaring a state of emergency and yet you President Fuchs are saying my son or daughter should be going to class?' That (announcement) elevated that tension, locally with parents and brought a national visibility to this," Fuchs said.
Fuchs said he hopes the event will end up bringing the community closer together, and that it can be used to create a dialogue about race.
Students vow to fight hate with hope
Meanwhile, student groups said they are ready to fight hate with kindness.
UF’s Jewish Student Center is opening up its doors to everyone, providing a safe place for students and kicking off an event to spread kindness on Thursday.
Rabbi Berl Goldman said the center’s Good Deed Marathon runs parallel to what he calls a hateful event.
Students are encouraged to do random acts of kindness to help counter the negative energy.
“We believe that when somebody wants to respond to darkness, do it with light,” Goldman said. “If you want to respond to hate, do it with love, and that will hopefully extinguish their agenda and message.”
Spencer calls himself an “identitarian” who wants “to preserve the white majority” in the country.
Fuch and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also urged people to boycott Spencer's speech as Gainesville braces for the kinds of skirmishes between Spencer's supporters and opponents, including “Antifa,” or anti-fascists, that have erupted on campuses elsewhere.
The university initially balked at allowing Spencer to speak, but relented after his attorney threatened to sue.
“I think Gov. Scott and the attorney general would be well-advised to see that the First Amendment is protected and upheld instead of injecting themselves into a political dialogue that they are obviously not able to handle like responsible adults,” Evan McLaren, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Policy Institute, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview.
Spencer group denies being 'hateful'
Bondi's and Scott's take on Spencer and his followers is “complete nonsense,” McLaren said.
“And they know it's nonsense, because they have no substantial or serious response to our message and to our presence and so they're trying to deal with it by portraying us as violent and hateful,” McLaren said. “There's nothing hateful about what Richard or myself or National Policy Institute expresses.”
McLaren blamed Antifa, many of whom wear black helmets and carry pepper spray, for the melees at Spencer's other appearances.
“When we hold events by ourselves that we control, there is no violence,” McLaren said. “The only time that there is violence is when the left shows up to counter-demonstrate and attack us, or even when elements of the left show up on their own.”
At the Charlottesville rally in August, Spencer supporters carried tiki torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us” before a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
But counter-protesters and Spencer supporters may not be the only ones in danger.
McLaren went to work for Spencer shortly after passing the Bar exam in late July.
“My first business purchase was a ballistics vest. So we're definitely mindful of the threat that we face. But this is just how the game is played. If you want to say something serious and meaningful and change-oriented, then obviously it's going to upset a lot of people,” McLaren said.
Antifa members from Atlanta and Orlando are expected to flood into Gainesville, even though they may not have access to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer will speak.
Organizers of the event decided to distribute tickets to the speech, instead of the typical process in which the center provides the tickets, after reports that ticket-holders could exchange the passes for free beer or even money.
McLaren said he will hand out tickets inside the venue to people who make it through a primary security check, and he won't give them to anybody who looks like they are there to create a disturbance.
UF braces for speech
The selective ticket situation could heighten tensions already ramping up at the university.
“It made us all upset because it's happening on our campus and we can't even attend the event,” said Christopher Wilde, a 21-year-old senior from Miramar who is a member of the “No Nazis at UF” group opposing Spencer's speech and the university administration's handling of it.
Many students are torn between boycotting the speech, as advised by Fuchs and others, protesting or attending. Despite the state of emergency issued by Scott, Fuchs has not canceled classes Thursday.
Dozens of members of the “No Nazis at UF” group marched to the school's administrative offices Monday to protest Spencer's appearance, pledging to show up en masse on Thursday. The group, which collected more than 3,500 online petitions urging the university to cancel the speech, participated in a sit-in on campus Tuesday evening to protest the university's refusal to cancel classes.
“They're pretending you can go to campus safely if you stay away from the Phillips Center, but they're shutting down buildings that are far away,” Wilde said in a telephone interview. “It's a mixed message. School isn't closed but we're going to have cops and National Guard all over campus and buildings are shut down. If it's safe out there, why is there such a heavy police presence and why are buildings being closed early?”
Wilde is ignoring advice from his parents, who told him to treat the rest of the week like a hurricane and stay shuttered in his apartment, even though he said he is afraid of what might happen Thursday.
“I'm worried for everyone's safety but I also know that we have to show our opposition to this kind of ideology because in history the only thing that has stopped it is opposition to Nazism
or white supremacy,” he said. “It's scary but it's the only way."
Students ready to rally
Meanwhile, a group of students has organized an online event scheduled to take place at the same time as Spencer's 2:30 p.m. speech.
“If people want to protest, they're going to protest. But there's also people on campus who feel very unsafe and would rather stay inside so this gives them an outlet to engage with the university community and not be alone on that day,” said Cassie Bell, a 22-year-old senior from Margate who is one of the organizers of “TogetherUF.”
The Facebook event, which Bell called an “online assembly” and will be accompanied by live social media posts, gives students “an opportunity to stay safe and be inside if that's what they prefer to do.”
The speech coincides with exams for most students, adding to anxiety, said Bell, who hasn't decided what she will do on Thursday.
But participating in the TogetherUF group has given students like Bell an outlet to protest Spencer's platform, even if only from afar.
“I obviously don't agree (with him). I have yet to meet somebody that does. But I almost feel that they're so radical I'm not sure what I can do as an individual to combat their beliefs,” she said in a telephone interview. “It's given me a sense that I'm not just sitting on my hands, that we're actively making an effort.”